A Baker Yeast Starter

Free Italian Olive Bread recipe included!

This is a short story of how I started baking bread at home.
I will share what inspired me to bake bread with a baker yeast starter. There are many resources that explain how to make your own sourdough starter, but I wanted to learn how to grow the specific baker yeast strain to make traditional Italian bread.
Soon you will enjoy your freshly baked, healthy, and tasty loaf of bread!

The inspiration

I wanted to experiment with baking bread again after a friend of mine gave me a wonderful loaf of sourdough bread.
There was something special about this loaf: the crust was crunchy and crisp, and the inside was nice and fluffy. My friend explained that he used a dutch oven. The process included pre-heating a dutch oven, baking the dough with the oven’s lid on for 30 minutes, and then removing the lid for the remaining 15 minutes.
He explained that the second phase allowed the loaf to rise nicely and remain soft because the lid would keep the baking environment moisty, while the third phase was the trick for the crunchy crust.
I was hooked: the Dutch Oven would be one of the pillars of my bread.

How to make your own bread yeast starter

After the March 2020 lockdown, baker yeast became conspicuously scarce in US grocery stores. I had a very limited supply of active dry yeast left, so I was refraining from making pizza in my outdoor brick oven (which I built 20 years ago, but that is a story for another post…).
I did some research, but I could not find how to grow baker yeast. Instead, I learned a lot about yeasts while watching sourdough starters videos: yeast is an organism that needs oxygen and that needs to be fed, so there was a chance that the techniques for the sourdough starter would work with baker yeast as well!
Let’s get… started!

  • Wash with soap and rinse a 16 ounces canning jar. Drill two holes on the lid, this way the yeast will be able to breathe.
    Using a screw may be the safest way to drill the holes by hand.
    Another possibility: if you have a jar with a glass lid, you have everything you need. Just do not use the gasket: you want the yeast to breathe, it needs oxygen.
  • You will need two teaspoons of active dry yeast. Activate the dry yeast in a cup of warm (100F) purified water, together with 2 teaspoons of sugar. Let it rest for 10 minutes, things will start bubbling up.
    Do not use tap water. Tap water contains chlorine, and it will kill the yeast.
    Also, hot water will kill the yeast, so make sure you do not exceed the 100F.
  • At this point, pour the water with the activated yeast in the jar. Add two tablespoons of flour and stir until the starter reaches the consistency of a paste. Put the jar in the fridge.
    The reason why you want to keep it in the fridge is that you want to control the growth of the yeast, and you don’t want it to spoil in case you forget to feed it for one day.
  • After the first day, open the jar. You will see that the paste actually turned into dough: it grew in volume, and now it looks soft. From now on, every day, add two tablespoons of flour, two tablespoons of purified water, and stir. You want the paste to be wet, but you don’t want to see water sloshing around.
  • You will need half a jar of this starter for your first loaf, you should get there in about 3 days.
    Don’t empty the jar completely, leave a bit of starter on the bottom of the jar, add two tablespoons of flour and two tablespoons of water, stir it, and restart the process: the yeast will start growing again.
  • Always use unbleached and non-GMO flour, you want to treat yourself (and your yeast) well!

The amazing thing about what started as an experiment is that this yeast strain did not go… “wild”. I was ready for failure and expected that in a period of a few days I would have reinvented sourdough.
Instead, this yeast strain remained healthy and kept prospering.
I have been baking bread for a few months now, and I never had to use (or try to buy) active dry yeast again.

Italian Olive Bread: a Recipe

I really hope you will enjoy this as my kids and I do!

In a bowl, pour half a jar of the starter and 4 cups of flour. Add two teaspoons of salt, and one tablespoon of Extra Virgin Olive oil.
Warm-up (100F is good) a cup of purified water and pour it into the bowl.

You don’t need to knead the dough, you can just mix this with a large spoon. Prepare another cup of purified water, you will not need it all of it, but you may want to add some water so the dough is moist.
Mix well, until the dough is consistent.
It needs to be wet, but not drenched.

Let it rest for 24 hours.

#Expert Mode: ON
Feel free to experiment with shortening this time.
You can experiment with mixing it during these 24 hours and let it rise again.
Write down the differences.
#Expert Mode: OFF

Enters the Dutch Oven! (Oven mittens required!!!)

You will need a 3.5 Quarts Dutch Oven. I recently bought an inexpensive cast iron model which, for this application, works as well as its more expensive french enameled older sibling.

While you preheat the oven (set Bake @ 450F) with the dutch oven for 30 minutes, you can start slicing the olives.
2 cups of olives should work, I cut them in 4 pieces.
Make sure the olives are dry.

After the preheating phase, mix the olives with the dough and pour everything in the dutch oven, put the lid on, and bake for 35 more minutes.
During this phase, the bread will puff up.

Finally, remove the lid for the last 15 minutes. This last phase is for the crust. If you like a darker crust, keep it going for another 5 minutes.

Remove the loaf from the dutch oven, and put it in a rack to cool down.

Enjoy!!!

There is something magic, inherently good about bread.
The experience of sharing an extra loaf with your neighbors turns the baking experience in something almost spiritual.
I think we need some of that, especially these days.

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